AFI Fest: “Nanny” and “Piaffe” – Blog
by Christopher James
The AFI Film Festival kicked off in earnest on Wednesday with the premiere of Selena Gomez: my mind and me. The pop sensation documentary was directed by Alex Keshishian (“Madonna: Truth or Dare”). My first day at the festival was a double feature of gender images directed by women. Nannydirected by Nikyata Jusu, and Peep, directed by Ann Oren. The two played with horror conventions in interesting ways to tell two very different stories. One deals with a complicated and bi-fractured history of motherhood and sacrifice. The other dramatizes pleasure in a strange but titillating way. Although the two tell different stories and have different tones, one film did a better job than the other of marrying tone and storytelling into a satisfying package.
So which one was the most successful? Discover following the jump…
Nanny (Dir: Nikyata Jusu)
The relationship between a nanny and her employer family has already been explored in many different films, mostly dramas. However, first-time feature director Nikyata Jusu takes that relationship and turns it into a high-level horror drama anchored by a terrific lead performance from Anna Diop.
Diop plays Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant who works as a nanny for an offbeat New York family in order to earn enough money to send her own boy from Senegal to join her. Things are going well for Aïcha. The child, Rose (Rose Decker), loves to cook and quickly learns French, which Aisha teaches him. Rose’s parents are another story. Her mother, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), is a stressed boss who wants to flirt with Aisha, but conveniently forgets to pay her. Meanwhile, her husband Adam (Morgan Spector) feels like the guy you should be on your guard with. He’s kind enough on the surface, but harbors a resentment towards his uncomfortably bleeding wife. Aisha tries to compartmentalize work and her personal goals, but soon her two worlds collide in ways she can’t fully reckon with.
The lead role makes or breaks the movie. Fortunately, Anna Diop is a revelation. Aisha has no illusions about the American dream. Living in America will give her son a chance for a better life, but the roads aren’t paved with goals and dreams. Diop manages to make Aisha’s even numbness convincing. For much of the film, she swallows the disappointment and lets the microaggressions roll off her back. The few shots she fires resonate loudly because we’ve seen her in control for much of the movie. However, this isn’t just a movie about a sullen woman who works her way into a job. That would be too easy and a note. A budding relationship with a doorman named Malik (Sinqua Walls) gives Aisha a chance to hope for a more normal home life once her son makes his way to the United States.
Horror is an incredibly versatile genre that can be used to visually and emotionally connect an audience to visceral and complex emotions. Nanny certainly has a lot to say, and the third act uses horror tropes to dramatize the responsibilities and guilt that come with motherhood, whether biological or part of a job description. Yet he never feels completely set in stone to the overall vision of the film. In fact, the genre feels like an afterthought for over an hour in the 99-minute film. This is not necessarily a damning criticism. It’s just a note for an up-and-coming writer/director. On the contrary, Nanny got me excited about the emerging talent that is writer/director Nikyatu Jusu. She clearly has an evocative visual eye and can marry it with clear, heartbreaking and understandable emotions. B
Nanny is distributed by Amazon Studios. It will be released in theaters on 11/23 and on Prime Video on 12/16.
Peep (Dir: Ann Oren)
We all want to be good at our jobs. There are just lengths we wouldn’t all go to. Eva (Simone Bucio) resumes work as a sound designer after the hospitalization of her brother, Zara (Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau). The end result of the antidepressant ad, which features a horse, is a comic mess. The director, wearing a ridiculously funny platinum bowl cut, chews her up for the job and advises her to learn horses. Eva takes his suggestion and visits the stables and spends hours watching the horse in the commercial clip. Soon, she spots a protrusion in her lower back that begins to look like a ponytail.
Rather than going the body horror route, visual artist-turned-director Ann Oren instead focuses on making Eva happy with this new appendage. Once her mane is full, she seeks out a botanist (Sebastian Rudolph) who has a curious attraction to her ponytail. The two begin a sexual relationship that is beautiful in its strangeness and sensuality. The way Oren models their initial date echoes some of Pedro Almodovar’s bolder uses of color to signify pleasure.
Scene by scene, Piaffe is a seductively bizarre comedy about a woman enjoying a change in her body. Unfortunately, as a narrative film, it falls short. There’s no dramatic thrust driving the story forward, with only the villainous director being an opposing force. Though stylistic, the bursts of color and sweeping cuts Oren chooses obscure and frustrate more than they draw us into this world. There is skill here, but it seems misplaced. VS-
Piaffe is currently looking for distribution in the United States.